Africa’s Diversity

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Africa, the second largest continent in the world and second most populous continent on earth, is blessed in manifold ways; in language, culture, art, monuments, vegetation, religious ideas, physical quality, natural resources, and many more areas.

Though there have been many concepts and definitions regarding the idea of diversity, the indigenous ideas of Africans societies have had much to reveal about the possible elements of culture and ethnicity with differences in class, languages, religions, and gender roles.

Africa’s diversity on the map (source)


In today’s neo-colonial era, Africa exists out as the continent with the highest number of countries. Africa has a total of 54 countries, followed by Asia with a total of 47 countries, while Europe comes third with a total of 43 countries. The table below shows the total breakdown of the number of countries in each continent.

Continent Number of Countries
Africa 54 countries
Asia 47 countries
Europe 43 countries
North America 23 countries
Australia and Oceania 14 countries
South America 12 countries
Antarctica 0 countries

Apart from the dividing each continent into countries, there are other approaches for comparing Africa to other continents in the world, such as by population, languages, area coverage, GDP, and genetics amongst others.

In terms of population, Asia has the largest population in the world with over 4 billion people who make up about 62% of the world’s population. This is followed by Africa with over 1 billion in population amounting to about 16% of the world’s population. Europe comes third in population size with about 700 million people and 8% of the world’s total population. Others are North America with 500 million, South America with 400 million, Australia and Oceania with 36 million, and Antarctica with 4 thousand.

In terms of area covered, Asia holds the largest area in the world with the continent covering over 29% of the world’s land mass. This is of course followed by Africa covering a total land area of 30,375,489 square kilometers (11,728,037 square miles) equivalent to about 20% of the world’s land mass.

The Largest country in Africa by population: By the population size, Nigeria is the largest in Africa with 181,563,000 people in 2017. This is followed by Ethiopia with a population size of 103,764,000. Third largest country by population in Egypt, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Largest country in Africa by GDP: Nigeria still leads Africa in terms of total GDP with a total estimated Nominal GDP of $376.284 billion in 2017. This is followed by South Africa with an estimated Nominal GDP of $349.299 billion. The third country ranked in terms of GDP in Egypt followed by Algeria, Angola, Morocco, Ethiopia, and the list goes on.

The Largest country in Africa by area: Algeria stands as the largest country in Africa in terms of land area, and it is the 10th largest in the world with 2,381,741 square kilometers. This is closely followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a total land area of 2,344,858 square kilometers. The third largest is Sudan with 1,861,484 square kilometers. This is followed by Libya, Chad, Niger, and others.


Africa is home to more than one-third of the world’s total languages spoken (about 6,000 languages in the world). Despite the bilingual nature of Europe, which can be attributed to Europe’s closeness of countries, it only accounts for about 300 languages in the world. Africa is multilingual with some areas like western Uganda having each person speaking an average of 4 languages.

There are different theories to the diversity of languages in the world as well as in Africa. We will take a look at some of these approaches and how they relate to the African continent as a whole.

The Christian explanation of language variations

In the 11th chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, from the first verse through to the ninth verse, we see an interesting tale of a time when the entire world spoke one language. This unity among all humans led to a case of self-idolatry, unwillingness to obey God’s command to populate the earth, and an ambition to take pride in their achievements rather than reverencing God. God in turn, in a bid to humble humanity, confounded the language of all the earth; and thus God scattered them abroad upon the face of the whole earth. This brought an end to the co-operation amongst humans and gave rise to the different groups and different language developed on the earth.

The scientific explanation of language variations

Today, scientists have a pretty predominant theory on the origin of the different languages in humanity. This theory though attributes Africa with creating not only the first language but also the first language group developed by Homo sapiens. With over 2,000 living languages, language diversity in Africa supports with linguistics the genetic evidence which positions Africa as the cradle of the human species based on the founder effect. Africa has not only living languages but also dead languages, deciphered writings, undeciphered writings, and polyglots. Let’s take a look at these different features of the continent.

Living Languages

A living language is simply a language that is still spoken in current time. It is sometimes referred to as a modern language and is currently in use. A living language must have at least one speaker whose first language is the language in question. The number of living languages in the world is still under debate by scholars. They put it between 6,000 to about 7,000 languages. The different continents and the number of living languages recorded so far are illustrated in the table below.

Rank by Most Regions Number of living languages
1 Asia 2,303
2 Africa 2,146
3 Pacific 1,312
4 Americas 1,060
5 Europe 285

Dead Languages

A dead language on the other hand is referred to as a language that has no active native speaker anywhere in the world. Furthermore, a dead language has no known derivative in use or a community attached to the language.

The major causes associated with the death of a language are; cultural assimilation, language shift, and the gradual abandonment of a language for another more useful language. One example of a dead language is the Mesmes language under the Semitic language family. This language was once spoken in Ethiopia in Africa. The last known speaker was interviewed in 2000 CE by a language team when he was 80 years old, and as at that time, he had not spoken the language for over 30 years.

Deciphered writing system

A writing system is considered deciphered once scholars have discovered the meaning and grammatic rules of writing left by ancient or current Era literate societies. According to Serge (Springer, P.3, 2006), decipherment in cryptography refers to decryption. Some major examples of deciphered writing systems are the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Nsibidi script and the Ge’ez script.

The Egyptian hieroglyph, probably the most famous ancient writing system, was the formal writing system used by the Royal Court of Ancient Egypt and is among the earliest writing ever developed on earth. It combined syllabic and alphabetical elements with logo graphics amounting to over 1,000 characters.

The Nsibidi writing system is simply an ideographic script indigenous to the present-day southern Nigeria. The Nsibidi symbols date back to several centuries ago with early forms on pottery, stools, and sometimes headrest.

The Ge’ez script, on the other hand, is an alpha-syllabary writing system developed in Africa around the 8th to 9th century BC. The system is still used in modern day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and for several other languages.

Undeciphered writing system

Examples of undeciphered writing systems are Proto-Sinaitic script, Cretan hieroglyphs, ikom in Cross River state Nigeria and Meroitic. Most African writing systems that are undeciphered remain so due to such languages having no known descendants, the language being totally isolated, insufficiency in the text found for the languages, and sometimes uncertainty over if discovered symbols constituted a writing system at all.

Another example of an undeciphered script is the Ancient Garamantes script, which is possibly a proto-writing script. The script, which is actually thought of as an ancient Tifinagh script, had no vowels in its writing and was not in any way marked. Many forms of the writing existed, mostly written from bottom to the top and also from right to left.

Another example of undeciphered writing is the Ikom monoliths scripts from the Cross-River State in Nigeria. Though the writing has great similarities with the Nsibidi scripts, there has not been a sufficient discovery on the writing patterns, syllabic structure, and meaning of the certain text.


A polyglot is a person who can speak other languages apart from their mother tongue. With the number of languages in the African continent, there are a lot of polyglots or multilingual speakers on the continent. This has been crucial feature of Africa life since pre-colonial times, fostering inter-cultural harmony, diversity of people groups and also indicating likely presence of genetic variations.

Linguistic groups in Africa

Although scholars have worked hard to find similarities between different African languages, a lot more work needs to be done in this area. Also, at least 20 languages are still unrelated to the four major language groups of Africa. This offers opportunities for new discoveries.

In approaching the linguistic diversity of Africa, there are certain frameworks that can be used to explain the language diversity in Africa. We would look into the top four approaches which are time, genetics, politics, and geography. Although languages and cultures do evolve faster than biology, languages can evolve much more quickly over shorter periods of time, such as a century, while biology can take more than hundreds of thousands of years to evolve or develop into major changes.


Due to the complex population history and variation in climate, and other factors, Africa is a very important region for human genetic diversity study. This can be attributed to the climate, diet, and exposure to diseases, which in turn results in high levels of phenotypic and genetic variations in the continent’s population.

Some scholars attribute the origin of humanity to Africa and have claimed that this has affected to a high degree the genetic diversity and the linguistic variation in the African continent. According to the University of Pennsylvania geneticist Sarah Tishkoff, speaking to the Monitor, said that “there’s been a lot of time for Cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, and genetic diversity to accumulate in Africa”.


Due to the slow but significant pace of technological changes and advancements throughout much of human history, there were very few opportunities for large empires to emerge owing to the fact that most regions had similar levels of technology even before the invention of gun powder in China. This gave African communities the opportunity to develop broad diversity in their political structures, gender roles and ultimately languages.

In regions where disparities arose in military advantage, this conquest often preceded local epistemicide. In instances where the victors outnumbered the defeated, the linguistic diversity of Africa could be reduced each time conquered nations were forced to adopt education, taxation, political rule, trade deals, writing or reading in vernacular of the regional hegemony. In instances where the new rulers and their retinue were outnumbered by the local population, the descendants of the ruling class often eventually adopted the language of their subjects.


Africa has diversity in its climate across the whole continent, this coupled with infectious diseases across Africa has given rise to some areas with geographical isolation for long periods of time which in reality contributed immensely to the evolution of different languages in Africa.


Scholars have actually attributed a lot of the diversity in Africa to the different eras and times experienced by most of the regions in Africa. Some eras were actually faced with civil wars, authoritarian rule, and lots of migrations. Scholars and researchers believe Homo Sapiens have existed in Africa for over 340,000 years ago, amounting to more than 17,000 generations. Over this period, the African continent has experienced a lot of migrations; Africans from Morocco moving Northeast and West of Africa; those from the Eastern part moving into West Africa, and even Africans from West Africa, East Africa, and North Africa migrating through the Arabian Peninsula into Europe, Asia, Oceania, and even the Americas. Also, there was movement from the Middle East into Africa. This migration and mingling of cultures contributed immensely to the linguistic diversity in Africa.


Africa is home to many religions and beliefs and houses a mixture of both local beliefs and global beliefs. Although religion in Africa is multifaceted, it has largely influenced the art, philosophy, and culture of the continent. In today’s Africa, various individuals adhere to mostly Christianity, Islam, and to some lesser extent traditional African beliefs. So in addition to Christianity, Islam, Atheism, and Agnosticism, you will find some religions very unique in Africa.

Map showing different Regions and their predominant religion (source)

Ancient Beliefs

Niger-Congo (West African) beliefs:

The common features of the beliefs of Niger-Congo cultures, mostly comprising of West Africans, has been researched. At the core of their beliefs, many Niger-Congo civilisations believed in an all-powerful distant Creator. This Creator supersedes all spirits responsible for controlling ‘principles’. The Creator also supersedes ancestors; responsible for cross-generational blessings or curses, and the Creator was finally seen to be above all living things. Many Niger-Congo cultures had a sacral king, who was the mediator between the people and the most powerful ancestors.

Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs

The Ancient Egyptians took a different religious view to the Niger-Congo civilisations. Metaphysical principles, astrophysical principles, and certain outcomes were controlled by a pantheon of gods. The diversity of gods was permitted to maintain unity within the centralized state of Ancient Egypt. The religion was also held by some Ancient North Africans and Greeks influenced by Egypt. Some examples of Egyptian deities were a demiurge (Ra), sun (Ra), Sky (Horus), fertility (APIs and Hathor), emptiness (Shu), air (Tefnut), day and night (Nut), rams (Ammon), lions (Maahes), lionesses (Bastet), earth (Geb), order (Ma’at), chaos (set), war (Sekhmet), Justice (Ma’at), the Nile (Hapis), vegetation (Osiris), afterlife (Osiris). In the physical realm at the apex of society was the divine representative of the gods, the Pharoah.

Egyptian Ennead

The Ennead, also referred to as the great Ennead, was actually a group of nine deities worshipped at Heliopolis. These gods were; the sun god Atum, the children of Atum; Shu and Tefnut, Geb and Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and sometimes Horus, the son of Osiris and Isis. Belief in the Ennead belief rose to great importance during the fifth and sixth dynasties in Egypt. This remained even till the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty established by Ptolemy, successor to Alexander the Great.

Ancient Berber beliefs

The ancient Berber beliefs held mostly by the Berber autochthones of North Africa, was a set of ancient and native belief developed locally by the people.

The ancient Berbers had beliefs like the consideration of the spirits of their ancestors to be gods. They mostly swore, cursed, and prayed to them and awaited their replies through dreams. Another belief of the Berbers and even their forefathers; the Numidians and Mauretanians, was a belief in the afterlife. The Berbers also shared beliefs with the Egyptians. We see this in their worship of Isis and Set who were also Egyptian gods. While this was true, Egyptians also shared some deities with the Berbers, for example, the god Neith.

Though some of the beliefs were later in time influenced or borrowed during antiquity, the most recent influence was seen from Islam and pre-Islamic Arab religion around 750 A.D after a failed attempt in 660 A.D through conquest. Some of the beliefs of the Ancient Berber religion still exist today but scarcely in some areas. But before their conversion to Islam, some Berbers had converted to Judaism, Christianity, and other traditional polytheism. Some gods believed by some Berbers includes; Gurzil the God of war notable among the Luwata nomads. This god is usually represented by bullhead. We also have the Idir the god of unclear capacities also referred to as “the alive God”. We also have the Lilu, the rainwater god, the Sinifer god, the war god of Luwata. Other gods include Yur, Yukus, Tililwa, Nabel, and Suggan.

Nilotic (middle Nile) religious beliefs

Nilotic beliefs encompass beliefs unique to people speaking the “Middle Nile” family of languages. These people were mostly found around Southern Sudan and the Northwestern part of the Great Lakes. The grouping of people into Nilotes is a linguistic grouping and does not reflect exhaustively cultural and religious beliefs. Pre-Colonial Nilotic people held a mixture of beliefs, including Christianity and polytheism. The Dinka are an example of a society that believed in a pantheon of deities.

Nilotic speaking people may have adopted the age set system from Cushitic speaking people; which is a system of organizing communities based on age. Age determines eligibility to serve in the military and hold social or political positions. These beliefs were mostly held by people around the Middle Nile region of Africa and East Africa.

Some other Nilotes believed in a Supreme God called Nhialic who is known as the God of the sky and rain, and ruler of all spirits. The Nilotes believe that the Supreme God is present in all humans and in all creation. Some areas also refer to Nhialic as Jaak or Dyokin.

Nilotic people today still have various beliefs: some hold to Christian beliefs, some to traditional monotheism, some to traditional polytheism and others have found a middle ground.

Khoisan religious beliefs

Khoisan religious beliefs can be traced back to the earliest South Africans. The religion had five major elements: the high god, a trickster, a destructive god, lunar, and transmigration of the souls of the dead. The high god was the supreme creator and maintainer of all life and elements on earth. The high god had a figure of infinite goodness. The trickster figure referred to as Heitsi-Eibib by the Khoikhois, is thought of as a three-faceted personality; creator, destroyer, and prankster. This deity figure maintains the balance between good and evil. The destructive god was usually thought of like an opposite to the high god, as it was his duty to cause evil. He was referred to as the evil god responsible for sickness, war, and death. Other mythical figures existed in Khoi Khoi and San belief systems such as !xu, Hai-uri, Ga Gorib and Aigamuxa. The Khoisan communicated with the spirit world by first dancing until they entered a trance.

Beliefs from our era

Pre-colonial Yoruba

Some Yorubas have not seized to perform their practices connected to their pre-colonial religions in Nigeria. Yoruba cosmology puts it that all the religious practice is a part of Itan, which is a complex cultural aspect that connects all the Yorubas.

The major gods among the Yorubas are Eledumare (creator of everything in the world), Olorun (ruler of the heavens), and Olofi (conduit between two worlds).

There are also spirits called Orishas that can travel between the heavens and the earth. Examples include Sango, Orunmila, Osanyin, Esu, Erinle, Osun, Ogun, Oya, and many others.

Pre-colonial traditional Zulu

In Zulu mythology, they believe that Unkulunkulu created everything in the world. He was originally a reed, and he transformed into a human form. From him, Zulus believed they had learned most of their survival skills, and Unkulunkulu taught them the art of hunting and farming. The Zulus believed that reverence and honor of ancestors gave access to protection from evil spirits. They also hold the belief that the ancestors are intermediaries between the living world and the spirit world.

The Copts of Egypt

The Egyptian Coptic period was usually referred to as Egypt’s Christian period which lasted for almost 500 years (fourth century to ninth century C.E.). Majority of the Egyptian population became Christians due to the fact that between 200 C.E and 400 C.E, Christianity was declared a legal religion by Roman emperor, Constantine.

Aksum (Modern day Ethiopian)

Among many religions accepted by Aksum, Christianity was embraced around the 4th century, between 340 to 356 C.E. under the rule of king Ezana. The king was converted by a former Syrian captive, Frumentius, who was later made the bishop of Aksum. After Frumentius baptized the king, Aksum became a Christian state.

Adoption of Islam in Egypt

Early Islam in Egypt was expansionist in nature. A lot of factors influenced the expansion of Islam. Some were economic, while others being social factors.

Egypt was one of the first countries to come under the Arab armies, who were fast spreading into North Africa, eastward and Northward in Asia. Egypt was invaded by Arab forces in 640 C.E. under the military commander Amr ibn al-As, who was a contemporary of Prophet Muhammad. By 641 C.E. he had conquered Cairo, Alexandria by 647 C.E., and placed the entire country under Islamic rule. By the 9th century, over 90% of Egypt had converted to Islam.


Map showing Africa’s transportation routes (source)

Another area of diversity in the African continent is its various means of transportation. Different regions have different means of transportation based on their geographical location, political influence, and technological advancement. Some major forms of transportation seen in Africa that express its high level of diversity are cars, buses, bicycles, cars, canoes and camel.


Another means of transportation in Africa is the motorcycle. This is most prevalent in cities. Transportation systems that allow this form of transport are mostly seen in areas with roads (standard or locally created path) and can be used to carry humans as well as goods.


Africa has an extensive bus service across most, if not all, of its countries. It is the major means of transportation for the locals of most of these countries. It also serves as a means of transportation for tourist as well. Various types and sizes of bus exist, and this depends on the region.


We find the use of camels mostly in the Northern part of Africa, in places like Egypt and Morocco that share borders with the Sahara desert. Also, places like Ethiopia and Djibouti also have camels as a means of transportation. The species of camel found in Africa is the dromedary camel or the Arabian camel.

Other transportation forms used in Africa include cars, bicycles, and walking. Bicycles and walking are mostly used in rural areas to transport items from farms, across villages, etc. Another notable means, but mostly in river areas, is the canoe.

Tuareg – ca. 1970-1995 — A man of the Saharan Tuareg tribe in a blue robe stands barefoot on a sand dune, his face protected by a part of his white turban. — Image by © Christine Osborne/CORBIS – Fotografo: corbis

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Africa’s Diversity

by Editorial Team time to read: 15 min